Computer with pen and colored sticky notes for editing first draft of novel

Practical Tips for Editing Your First Draft

When you finally reach the end of your novel’s first draft, one huge weight is lifted from your shoulders – only to be replaced with another.

Because as uplifting as it is to lay down those final few words in a manuscript, doing so also means that the editing phase is waiting just around the corner. There’s no avoiding it, but it is possible to make it a little less of an overwhelming prospect.

So here are a few practical tips to help make editing your first draft a pleasurable experience, instead of a frustrating, table-flipping nightmare.


Print and mark up a physical copy

In the first instance, print your manuscript and sit down for a few solid reads, marking problems that you need to return to. Mark these up in the margins, and highlight the text with a range of highlighters. You could also use different colored sticky notes to organize your thoughts based on a coding system.

Here are a few ideas for labels to use:

  • ADD – Use this when you notice that a scene or plot point requires more detail. Perhaps you’ll need to add more description, a call-back, some extra dialogue, or an entirely new scene.
  • CUT – When you’ve noticed that something has no real reason to be where it is, mark it for cutting. (Yes, this is sadly the most ruthless part of editing!)
  • CONF – Use this to mark points of confusion. Perhaps a block of prose doesn’t parse correctly, and what’s going on in the story isn’t clear. A confused reader is an upset reader, so make sure to mark any points where the prose is confusing.
  • MOVE – Often, you’ll notice scenes that would be better placed elsewhere in the story – for pacing reasons, for example. Make a MOVE mark to remind that this section will need to be relocated.
  • REP – Use this to highlight repetition. Say, for example, if certain characteristics of characters are pointed out too often, or you read a passage and notice you’re using the same word over and over again.
  • FACT – Use this to remind yourself to perform fact checking on real-world references. Details such as dates, professional terms, scientific formulae, and historical events will all need to be carefully checked to ensure you got them right.
  • IMP – Use this to mark a passage for improvement. Maybe it reads well but isn’t quite as impactful as you’d hoped it would be. If so, flag it for a re-write with an IMP marker.

If you come across something that will require more investigation than could take place in a simple margin, note down the details of these in a separate notebook – there, you can keep track of the larger things and mark your progress in resolving problems.

There’s nothing worse than highlighting a passage and then coming back later and wondering what exactly was I thinking when I marked that? To get around that, jot down your thoughts in your notebook as you go – for example, “Pg. 45, CUT – Is this scene telling us anything new?”


Focus on one thing at a time

For your editing to be an efficient and stress-free experience, it’s essential to stay focused. Each time you approach your manuscript with your editor’s hat on, do it with the intention of tackling one particular element.

For example, on one complete pass, look out for filler words that you can eliminate. On the next, focus on dialogue. After that, follow the threads of your character arcs to make sure they’re organic and believable.

You don’t have to do things in that order, of course, but choose one thing to tackle and do that before moving onto the next. This helps in avoiding overwhelm, which can set in very easily once your attention starts jumping all over a page as you highlight this, that, and the other problem – and the next thing you know, you’re stuck in a spiral of procrastination.


Use Beta Readers

When your first editing pass is complete, enlist beta readers to provide you with feedback. Reach out to followers on social media and engage with others in your writing groups – it’s important to ensure that the people you bring on board to help you are not close friends and family.

Those closest to you often feel under pressure to stroke your ego and provide you with only the positive aspects of their thoughts on your work. Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly helpful at a vital time for your manuscript – brutal honesty is what you need, and the more disconnected you are from someone, the more likely it is that you’ll get honesty from them.

Create a questionnaire/feedback form for your readers, and provide it along with the book. Ask them to fill it in and let you know any questions they have that aren’t answered in the story, anything they find confusing, any plot holes they’ve discovered, or questions about character motivations.

Once all your feedback has been received and compiled, you’re ready to move on to draft three!


Take it easy

Remember to give yourself a break. When you reach the milestone of a completed first draft, it’s the result of many, many hours of hard work and sustained mental fortitude.

Be kind to yourself – give yourself some time to wind down and relax. When you start editing, take it at a comfortable pace instead of putting yourself under pressure.

Stepping away from your manuscript for a while will also let you come back to it with fresh eyes and a clearer perspective, making your editing that much more effective.


Use AutoCrit for the line edit

Alright… we just have to squeeze this one in there. Want to avoid drowning in pages and make editing faster, simpler, more efficient, less hand-cramp inducing, and a lot less like work?

Well, when your markup is done, and you’re ready to start all the cutting, shifting, and tweaking, set the pen down and do it with AutoCrit – and enjoy your editing being just as interesting (and as much fun) as the writing.


Free Checklist: Discover the "Must-Haves" Your Story Needs for a Gripping First Chapter

Uncover the key elements of a first chapter that grabs a reader's attention and makes them DEMAND to read more.

This printable checklist is a handy reference that helps you avoid common first chapter pitfalls in your current and future books.

Latest Blog Posts

Write better. Right now.